MONDAY 23 APR 2018 3:00 PM


London has always been a city of contrasts. Extreme wealth exists metres away from extreme poverty; extreme diversity caters to the city’s heterogeneity. Now, in a city of over seven million people, the biggest contrast of all is projected to emerge.

According to a report by London-based urban think tank Centre for London, the capital’s workforce must prepare for a future driven largely by automation. ‘Human Capital: Disruption, Opportunity and Resilience in London’s Workforce’ was published in April 2018 by Centre for London researchers Benjamin Kulka and Richard Brown. It highlights how, while disrupting the traditionally people-driven economy across London and its industry sectors, adopting an automated future will change the way business is conducted.

However, how well London’s population and commuters adapt to this emerging contrast is in the hands of London’s employers – and specifically, communicators.

Supported by and produced in association with global professional services firm EY, the report focuses on the effect of automation on London’s main sectors. Drawing on original US research methodology by economist Carl Benedikt Frey and machine learning researcher Michael Osborne, UK occupational classifications are applied to London’s workforce. Data from the UK-based Office for National Statistic (ONS) data showing employment by occupation (SOC 2010) and by industry (SIC 2007) then developed the complete ‘Human Capital’ report.

For employees across many organisations just the word ‘automation’ triggers alarm bells. It is true, point out Kulka and Brown, that consequences of automation such as wage stagnation and loss of population diversity through Brexit might put pressure on an unskilled, unprepared workforce. “It is worth noting,” says the report, “that the three sectors most dependent on EU workers – construction, accommodation and food, and administrative and support services – are also among those with the highest potential for automation.”

However, associated as it is with a robotic future and loss of employment, Frey and Osborne’s methodological timeframe of 20 years highlights the provisions which will emerge to mitigate any potential loss of earnings due to automation – as well as the huge potential for the London-based workforce to embrace a new, automated future.

The report says, “Technological change will create new jobs as well as replacing labour by automating existing jobs. New jobs will emerge in professions involved in the process of automation and digitalisation itself (for example in coding and development); from additional demand for services that are made more productive (such as financial advice); and from new products and services that are enabled by automation and increases in productivity (e.g. demand-responsive mass transit systems.”

The report also suggests that London in comparison to other European cities is in fact well-placed to adapt to the uncertain future presented by increased automation. Specialisation is widespread compared to other areas of the UK, with employees in sectors such as food service and retail continually adapting processes according to algorithmic methods. “Big data – the production and analysis of large data sets – and improved pattern recognition technology has made such tasks much more well defined as problems, and more capable of automation,” says Kulka and Brown. “Additionally, machine learning allows a computer to take on elements of nonroutine cognitive work, like programming itself.”

Further, automation can reduce human-led unconscious bias while offering the ability to process large data sets in a fraction of the time taken by a person. In the context of global political and technological shift, these advantages should be welcomed and used by communicators to highlight where automation is providing better results for business and employees. And in the context of an already rapidly shifting economy, and for organisations already predicted to experience structural change, perhaps automation will not be as big a shock as perhaps anticipated.

“From many perspectives, automation should be welcomed,” says the report. “It has the potential to improve productivity, create new economic opportunities and free workers from the drudgery of routine production.”

However, it is not just automation with the potential to permanently influence London’s workforce. The potential consequences of Brexit, and wage pressures due to the high cost of living, are cited in the Centre for London’s report as factors contributing to the need for a futureproof communications strategy for business across all sectors. A loss of productivity would undoubtedly negatively impact the wider UK – with the capital alone generating £400 bn per year, it is crucial that London’s economy remain robust and adaptable to change.

Download or read the full Human Capital: Disruption, Opportunity and Resilience in London’s Workforce report on the Centre for London’s website.

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